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Valholly Frank speaks at UN climate change summit in Madrid

Although hers is just one voice of many, climate activist and high school junior Valholly Frank isn’t shy about using it to help change the world.

In late November and early December, Frank went to Madrid, Spain, to voice her concerns about climate change at the United Nations 25th annual Conference of Parties (COP25) and the 15th annual Conference of Youth (COY15).

“Although we can’t vote and we don’t have that big of a say in society right now, we are still going to make an impact and stand up for what’s right,” said Frank, of Big Cypress. “If our lawmakers aren’t going to take action, we are. I know we are reaching the young generation, but we want to reach adults because they are the ones with the most influence nowadays.”

This wasn’t Frank’s first time speaking out on behalf of the planet.

She spoke at climate rallies in Fort Lauderdale and Miami in September and is one of eight youth who are suing the state of Florida on the grounds that the state has endangered youth by failing to protect the environment and their future.

Youth from around the world attended COY15, which met the week before the COP25, and held discussions about climate change with activists, students and academics.

The group developed policy positions and shared ideas for climate action at home. Frank spoke at a session with law students from around the world.

Valholly Frank speaks to law students about her part in legal action against the state of Florida during the U.N. Conference of Youth in Madrid, Spain, on Nov. 30. (Photo Michal Fidler)

“It was great to have people listen and understand what I was talking about,” she said. “These are the people who will be leading the discussions in their communities.”

As part of a workshop about empowering people, the COY15 group brainstormed ideas about how to bring awareness of the crisis to their hometowns. Specific plans were made and discussed.

“I think without the huge youth movement, especially the one Greta [Thunberg] started, it wouldn’t have been as empowering,” Frank said.

While at COP25, Frank met U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Representative Kathy Castor, of Tampa, who serves as the chairwoman of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

In November, Pelosi wouldn’t meet with members of the global environmental activist group the Extinction Rebellion when they held a demonstration in her office and Frank wanted to know why.

Pelosi said she treated the group with a lot of respect, but Frank said it was a disappointing moment.

Frank also spoke with Castor, who was very supportive of her lawsuit against the state and was in awe of where she came from.

Frank came to the conference with some traditional Seminole dolls to give to people she met and respected. She gave one to Castor.

“I wanted her to have a piece of my culture,” Frank said. “She gave me one of her Congressional pins. Even though it is hard to be proud of politics today, she is still patriotic and loves our country. It was great to see that.”

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, founded the #FridaysForFuture climate strike movement in August 2018. On Dec. 6, about half a million protesters marched in the streets of Madrid led by Thunberg and a group of Indigenous people from South America.

“Seeing tribes from Chile and the Amazon was so inspiring,” Frank said. “It was beautiful to learn about their culture, what they stand for and to see them taking action by going to U.N. conference. It was awesome to go onstage with them and be part of the Indigenous community. I want to see my Tribe out there. We are the unconquered and I want us to fight for social justice.”

Although they tried to stand on the COP25 stage to support other speakers, the indigenous group was removed from the stage.

Instead, they talked to the press outside of the room, sang, danced, played flutes and drummed. Frank was pleased to be part of the demonstration.

Frank attended the conference with her mother Rhonda Roff, who is also an activist.

“It’s great when kids get a chance to have camaraderie in the scenario of climate talks,” Roff said. “She saw how the process works; the boring meetings and gory details. Kids don’t want to hear any more excuses. They don’t know the answers and that technical solutions are complicated and take time.”

The climate conference ended Dec. 12 without a consensus of how to deal with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Major polluting countries, including the U.S., blocked measures that would have encouraged countries to work harder to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The outcome may not have been encouraging, but Frank was emboldened to continue her activism at home in her community and at school.

Before she left, she asked The Sagemont School principal to give students an excused absence to attend the #FridaysForFuture climate strike at Fort Lauderdale City Hall.

“My friends are still talking about how amazing it was to go,” Frank said. “I’m glad they are starting to understand what I do. It’s not a lot of yelling and screaming, but just being a human who is trying to save fellow humans. It’s great to know that everywhere in the world there is action happening.”

Although Frank and Roff never got to meet Thunberg, they witnessed what Roff called the “Greta effect” where people clamored for access to her.

During COP25 there were a lot of events, speakers and sessions to attend and the duo missed more than they were able to attend. But they saw a lot of exhibits from countries that showed their efforts to combat climate change.

“We are staring down the barrel of a gun right now and we should be in major crisis emergency mode,” Roff said. “People need to be mad; there is nothing more serious. People are already dying from the effects of climate change.”

There already are climate change refugees who have lost their homes throughout the world.

“It’s hard to think of an entire functional community, like the [Seminole] Tribe losing their home,” Roff said. “To be displaced is hard for a person, but for a whole community it is even harder. This is [Valholly’s] major focus, that this could be lost. There’s a lot of how dare you, how could you.”

Frank learned how powerful being together with a community of like-minded people can be.

“All these forces came together,” she said. “At first I felt out of place since there weren’t that many people from the U.S. But I met Native youth and elders from other countries who are on the frontline of climate change. So many people don’t understand the necessity to do something about it. I want to talk to our Tribal leaders about being more involved. We need to touch on the fact that climate change is going to affect everyone.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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